Feb. 6, 2008
Baylor fans who desperately needed a game program in order to learn all the new faces last season should need a program only for novelty sake this season. The Bears return six of nine position starters in 2008 and a seventh player, senior co-captain Paul Miles, started 27 games in 2007. Baylor also returns eight of 11 letter-winning pitchers from a year ago, including senior co-captain and preseason All-America closer Nick Cassavechia.
That continuity, combined with a handful of talented newcomers, has Baylor primed for what could be one of its best seasons ever. Still young but deep and talented, the 2008 Bears have great expectations.
Baylor fielded its youngest team in a decade last year, starting four true freshmen and a pair of sophomores. While the growing pains were evident on several occasions, Baylor put things together in the last month of the season and reached its ninth NCAA Regional since 1998. The Bears finished the season 35-27, becoming the 14th team in school history to reach the 35-win plateau.
In order to meet expectations, the 2008 Bears must continue the maturation and development they showed late in the 2007 campaign. Head coach Steve Smith, who enters his 14th season as Baylor's skipper 10 wins shy of 500 career victories, has been candid with his 2008 squad.
"I've told them they have the potential to be the best team Baylor has ever fielded," Smith said. "But in order to do that, they must reach the College World Series and finish better than fourth. That definitely puts things into perspective."
Smith's comment reflects the accomplishments of Baylor's 2005 squad that earned a share of the Big 12 Conference regular-season title and reached the national semifinals round at Omaha. That team and the 2008 Bears had at least one thing in common: a wealth of returning talent.
Baylor remains relatively young in 2008 as five of the nine projected starters are underclassmen. However, several upperclassmen look to play key roles in the Bears' success, including but not limited to Cassavechia, Miles, senior pitchers Randall Linebaugh and Tim Matthews, junior outfielder Ben Booker and junior shortstop Beamer Weems.
Armed with a solid core of veterans -- young and old alike, Baylor looks poised for another strong season in 2008.
Baylor has not started the same quartet of infielders for consecutive seasons since 1962 and 1963 when Jimmy Fox, Ronnie Goodwin, John McEldowney and Fred Neely accomplished the feat. The 2008 Bears look to duplicate that continuity as all four starters from last season return.
The only change will be a switch between second base and third base. Sophomores Raynor Campbell, Baylor's regular starter at the hot corner last season, and Shaver Hansen, the Bears' regular starter at second in 2007, switch places for the 2008 season. Sophomore first baseman Dustin Dickerson also returns, as does preseason All-American Weems.
A two-time All-Big 12 Conference honoree, Weems (.321, 9 HR, 59 RBI in 2007) was ranked the nation's third-best shortstop by CSTV.com during the preseason. Weems' credentials definitely make him fitting of that honor. The 2006 Louisville Slugger Freshman All-American was a unanimous first-team all-Big 12 selection last season after leading the Bears in RBI, doubles (17), total bases (125) and walks (35), and sharing the team lead in home runs and hits (71). Weems' RBI total was the best by a Baylor player since 2003 and tied for seventh in the Big 12. He also tied for sixth in the league in doubles and tied for second in triples (5).
Weems, who in only two seasons has hit more home runs than any shortstop in Baylor history, was even stronger in Big 12 play last season. He ranked eighth in batting average (.361), fourth in slugging percentage (.649), tied for seventh in runs (25), second in runs per game (1.04), tied for first in triples (3), sixth in total bases (63) and tied for sixth in RBI (27).
However, Weems likely is best known for his stellar glove play. In two seasons as Baylor's starting shortstop, he has committed only 22 errors in 534 total chances for a .959 fielding percentage. Furthermore, he has committed only six fielding errors in his career (the others were throwing errors).
Surrounding Weems are three members of Baylor's 2006 recruiting class that was ranked No. 1 nationally by Baseball America.
Campbell (.321, 5, 29) followed Weems' example and was named Louisville Slugger Freshman All-America last season after becoming the first Baylor freshman to lead the team in batting average (minimum 2.5 at bats per game) since Marty Crawford in 1993. Campbell, an honorable mention All-Big 12 selection last season, was third on the team with 13 doubles and batted leadoff the majority of the season. He was named Big 12 Freshman of the Year by the Waco Tribune-Herald and The Dallas Morning News, which also named him first-team all-conference.
Hansen (.296, 3, 35) finished 2007 as one of Baylor's hottest hitters. After struggling through the season's first six weeks, Hansen hit .341 the remainder of the season. His hot hitting began March 20 against Texas Southern when he hit his first career home run and turned in the 22nd five-hit game in Baylor history. Hansen hit safely in 27 games with 18 multiple-hit outings, and his 14 doubles ranked second on the team.
Dickerson (.292, 3, 30) also caught fire in the season's second half, hitting .345 over the season's final 41 games. He finished the season fifth on the team in hits (57) and second in walks (32), posting Baylor's third-best on base percentage (.400). Dickerson did most of his damage in Big 12 play, where his .373 batting average ranked second on the team, sixth in the conference and was best among league freshmen. In fact, Dickerson and Weems were the only Big 12 underclassmen to hit .350 or better in conference play during the 2007 season.
One new face will crack the infield rotation this season as junior college transfer Adam Hornung looks to split time between first base and designated hitter with Dickerson. Hornung, who hit a team-best .408 during Baylor's fall workouts, was a first-team all-conference selection at McLennan [Texas] Community College in 2007 after hitting .415 with 12 home runs, 57 RBI, 17 doubles and two triples.
True freshman Landis Ware is a versatile infielder who gives the Bears a viable security blanket in case of injury. Junior Drew Bias (.273, 0, 2) has played 41 games in his career with 22 starts; he could see time at third.
Baylor returns three outfielders with starting experience this season, two of whom were the Bears' regular starters at their respective positions in 2007. However, Baylor does not return a player with at least 20 career starts in center field for the first time since 2004.
Gone is Chase Gerdes, who logged 175 career starts in center during his career and started all 62 games there last season. Gerdes was instrumental in the development of Booker and Aaron Miller, both of whom were first year starters at the corner outfield spots last season.
Miles (.253, 0, 14) looks to fill that void in 2008. A veteran in his own right, Miles started 27 games last season and took over right-field duties when Miller sustained a season-ending injury in late April. Miles started 10 games in center during the 2006 season.
Booker (.306, 2, 32) was named honorable mention All-Big 12 Conference last season after leading the league with seven triples, a tally that tied for fifth nationally. Like many Bears, Booker was stronger in Big 12 play, hitting .333 against conference pitching. He is Baylor's top returning stolen base threat after swiping 11 bags in 2007. Booker, who played first and second base as a freshman, must continue to develop in the outfield, where he committed four errors last season.
Miller (.296, 4, 35) showed plenty of the potential that made him Baseball America's preseason freshman of the year last season. However, he sustained a broken arm when hit by a pitch in the Missouri series opener and was forced to miss the Bears' final 23 games. Miller still tied for third on the team in RBI and was the team leader at the time of his injury. He also finished third on the team in triples (4) and slugging percentage (.511), and he tied for second on the team with 11 multiple-RBI games.
Behind that trio are three underclassmen who could vie for outfield work -- sophomore Kenton Gedwed (.150, 0, 2), and freshmen Don Lambert and Chris Slater.
The position at which Baylor returns the least experience is catcher. 2007 starters Matt Czimskey and Matt Sodolak both were seniors last season, and Gregg Glime made only three starts as a true freshman.
Now a sophomore, Glime (.261, 0, 3) is the heir apparent to the starting job at what has been arguably Baylor's strongest position over the last seven years. Three of the Bears' last four regular starting catchers were Johnny Bench Award semifinalists -- Kelly Shoppach (2001), Josh Ford (2003) and Zach Dillon (2006) -- with Shoppach winning the award.
Glime played 19 games last season and logged 23 at bats with one double and seven runs scored. He did show signs of a good eye at the plate, drawing seven walks for a .433 on base percentage.
What they lack in experience behind the plate, the Bears make up for in depth. Junior college transfer Brooks Kimmey joins sophomore Tim Hartland and freshmen Andrew Cooley and Eric Udell as those vying for backup duties. Bias, who served as Baylor's bullpen catcher during the 2005 season, also is in the mix as a backup to Glime.
Kimmey hit .280 with three home runs and 21 RBI while at Temple [Texas] College in 2007. He spent his freshman season at Angelina [Texas] College, where he earned NJCAA Academic All-America honors and participated in the Texas JuCo All-Star Game.
Hartland (.200, 0, 1) appeared in six games last season and collected one hit in five at bats. Cooley and Udell both redshirted last season.
Baylor's returning pitchers started two-thirds of the Bears' games in 2007. The Bears also return two-thirds of their wins from a year ago.
Leading the way is sophomore right-hander Kendal Volz, an honorable mention All-Big 12 Conference selection last season. Volz (6-2, 5.16 ERA, 65 K in 2007) moved into Baylor's weekend rotation in early March as a freshman and did not exit. Along the way, he posted wins over Texas Tech, Kansas and Oklahoma; Volz defeated the Sooners twice. He became just the ninth freshman in Baylor history to record at least six wins.
Volz' second victory against Oklahoma was one for the ages as he established a Big 12 Championship record with 13 strikeouts in a victory that proved to be the deciding factor in the Bears making an NCAA Regional for the ninth time in 10 years. He joined Jason Jennings and Chad Hawkins as the only Baylor pitchers to record at least 10 strikeouts in a Big 12 tournament game, and it was the best single-game strikeout tally by a Baylor pitcher since Jennings' 14-strikeout performance against Kansas in 1999.
Linebaugh (3-5, 5.86, 54) started the season in the weekend rotation before moving to the bullpen in May. After struggling much of the season, he turned in three solid long-relief outings in the season's final three weeks.
The right-handed Linebaugh held Kansas State to a pair of runs on four hits over 6.1 innings in the series opener, a performance that was key in Baylor's rally from a first-inning, six-run deficit. One week later, he earned the victory in relief with a 3.2-inning relief appearance against 11th-ranked Missouri at the Big 12 Championship. Linebaugh's final outing of the season arguably was his best. Again out of the pen, he held 16th-ranked TCU to one run on two hits with six strikeouts over 6.1 innings in a no-decision at the NCAA Houston Regional to earn all-tournament honors.
Sophomore right-hander Wade Mackey (4-3, 3.18, 37) served as Baylor's primary midweek starter in 2007. He earned 11 starts on the season with one coming in Big 12 play. Mackey was named Big 12 Pitcher of the Week after a complete-game, two-hit shutout on national television at 23rd-ranked TCU. It was Baylor's first midweek complete game since 1995.
Another sophomore right-hander, Willie Kempf, served as the Bears primary long-relief man in 2007 but is a strong candidate for weekend rotation duties this season. Kempf (2-2, 3.00, 43) was second on the team with 9.92 strikeouts per 9.0 innings last season and also recorded a pair of saves in 19 appearances. He made two starts -- at second-ranked Rice and against 11th-ranked Missouri at the Big 12 Championship.
Two redshirt-freshmen right-handers should see plenty of work this season -- Shawn Tolleson and Craig Fritsch.
Tolleson was projected as a possible first-round draft selection entering his senior season at Allen [Texas] High School in 2006. However, Tommy John surgery forced him to miss nearly all of his final prep campaign. After taking a medical redshirt in 2007, Tolleson likely will open the 2008 season in the Bears' weekend rotation.
Fritsch, a product of Round Rock [Texas] High School, was named the fourth-best pro prospect in the Northwoods League last summer after going 5-1 with a 2.21 ERA and 52 strikeouts to earn all-league honors.
Baylor's bullpen will be anchored by Cassavechia (6-2, 3.12, 72), who in a season and a half as the Bears' closer already is tied for second on the school's career saves list with 19. Last season, he joined Zane Carlson as the only pitchers in Baylor history to record at least eight saves in consecutive seasons; Cassavechia would be the first Bear to reach that plateau in three straight seasons should he do so this year.
Named a first-team preseason All-American by Ping! Baseball, Cassavechia tied for second in the Big 12 and 23rd nationally last season with 11 saves. His saves total tied for the third-best, single-season tally in school history. Cassavechia logged 72 strikeouts in relief, the third-best season total all-time at Baylor. He had 44 of those in Big 12 play, two shy of Jennings' 1997 Baylor record.
The Bears are plenty deep in middle relief with Matthews (2-2, 4.64, 22) owning the most experience. After working both in the weekend rotation and out of the bullpen as a sophomore in 2006, Matthews worked nearly exclusively out of the bullpen last season. He earned two saves and was second on the staff with 24 appearances, all but two of which were in relief. However, he made the most of his two starts, winning both outings. The second victory was against Prairie View A&M at the NCAA Houston Regional, allowing two runs, one earned, on six hits and no walks over 7.0 innings.
Two familiar names return to the bullpen fray after not seeing action in 2007. Senior right-hander Erik Forestiere missed all of last season after undergoing Tommy John surgery as a junior in 2006; he has logged only 2.0 innings in a Baylor uniform. Meanwhile, sophomore right-hander Reed Woytek took a non-medical redshirt last season after posting a 4.60 ERA in 15.2 innings over 15 relief appearances in 2006.
Baylor returns a pair of southpaws in the bullpen -- senior Drew Jeffcoat and sophomore William Draper. Jeffcoat (0-0, 5.14, 6) worked 14.0 innings over 11 appearances last season, while Draper (1-0, 4.60, 13) logged 15.2 innings over 18 outings.
A third lefty, Miller, will see time on the mound after not pitching as a freshman. Considered one of the nation's best two-way players in high school, Miller was 3-0 with a 0.57 during his junior prep season.
Junior college transfer Mace Thurman gives the Bears another option from the left and could garner more than just spot work. Thurman recorded a team-high 31 strikeouts in 21.0 innings during the Bears' fall workouts. He was a two-time all-conference selection at McLennan Community College and was 9-1 with a 2.18 ERA as a freshman.
Five other right-handers round out Baylor's 2008 staff -- junior Brice Ary, redshirt freshman Tom Filip, and true freshmen Derek Blankenship, Brooks Pinckard, Jon Ringenberg and Ross Speed.
Like all Division I programs, Baylor adjusts to the new NCAA schedule policies in 2008. That means a universal start date and five-game weeks on a regular basis throughout the season.
Baylor opens at home with a three-game series Feb. 22-24 against Purdue. The season opener will be the Bears' 300th game at Baylor Ballpark, where Baylor is 217-82 (.726) all-time. The facility, one of finest in college baseball, celebrates its 10th season in 2008.
The Bears play their first nine games at Baylor Ballpark, rounding out the home stand with a two-game midweek set March 4-5 against up-and-coming Louisiana Tech. In the middle, the Bears host Illinois, Illinois-Chicago and Stephen F. Austin for the third-annual QTI Baylor Classic (Feb. 29-March 2).
Baylor's first road games will be against top-notch competition. The Bears play a three-game series March 7-9 at 2007 College World Series participant Mississippi State. Baylor then travels to Tulsa, Okla., for a pair of midweek games at Oral Roberts, which has reached the NCAA Tournament nine straight seasons.
Baylor returns home March 14-16 to open conference play, hosting Oklahoma State. Other Big 12 schools visiting Baylor Ballpark for three-game series this season are Kansas (April 4-6) and Nebraska (April 25-27). This season, the Bears travel to Missouri (March 21-23), Oklahoma (March 28-30), Kansas State (April 11-13) and Texas Tech (May 16-18).
The Bears also have their traditional split-series against Texas A&M (April 18-20) and Texas (May 2-4). Baylor hosts the Aggies for two games this season, while traveling to Austin for two games against the Longhorns. Texas also comes to Baylor Ballpark for a midweek non-conference game April 22.